What Rattle's LSO appointment might mean for London audiences

Martin CullingfordTue 3rd March 2015

Education lies at the heart of this maestro's musical mission

It wasn't the biggest of surprises when it was announced, just after 10 o'clock this morning, that Sir Simon Rattle was to take over the London Symphony Orchestra. But nor was it any the less welcome when it came. 

There are musicians who are defined by a presence of formidable grandeur, and that's fine, but it's not Rattle's way. He may be a maestro who has for more than a decade held one of the world's most prestigious podium posts - and he's about to hold another one - but Rattle is a leader whose rhetoric is all about being part of a family. 

The press conference itself set the tone. Low key, informal, a small gathering of journalists around a couple of tables, in a gin joint (ok, well, in Gin Joint, the Barbican bar perched two floors above the urban lake below. Coffee was served). But equally significantly, it wasn't the maestro's first meeting of the day. Before he'd come to speak to us, Rattle had first met with the orchestra players. 'I just came back from talking to the orchestra now, because I begged them, "can we at least all look each other in the face before we make any kind of official announcement?". And they came out at what I feel is the ungodly hour of 9.30 to talk.' Players before press. Just as it should be. 

I've been to a number of signing announcements over the years, where the focus has been on repertoire, on touring activity perhaps - and while education is always there too of course, you're not always sure exactly where it ranks in importance. With Rattle, you are. 

'I've been watching what the LSO has been doing these last 30 years. So many of the things I believe in – including this idea of access for everybody, that education and growth should actually be at the centre of any modern orchestra – is exactly what the LSO has been doing for years. It's the orchestra that first started in a very big and fundamental way the education process. I feel that it's not only part of their daily life, but it's become part of their music, the need to communicate in this way.' 

It's one of the first things he says, and is his answer as to why he wanted to become the LSO's Music Director. And when I ask about recording and digital plans, the example he reaches for as a definition of past success is not an acclaimed symphony cycle on disc, but 'a photo I got a few years ago, of the biggest, what we'd call an ethnic Indian reservation' - notably, the only time he fumbles over words through the entire press conference is when treading carefully through the minefield of politically correct terminology so as not to offend anyone - '…in Minnesota, with a film of Mahler Second coming from the Berlin Digital Concert Hall, broadcast on a barn, on an enormous white sheet, with the words underneath "you never know who's listening".' He speaks of the need for musicians to be 'evangelists, not just high priests - we can't expect people to come just because it's here and it's excellent. We have to spread the word. And we have to find ways to spread the word as far as is possible.'  

As he put it, 'we are all responsible for our art form and indeed for the culture of the country'. But while we're fortunate to have a number of impressive and eloquent advocates for music in the UK capable of inspiring new audiences - Sir Antonio Pappano and Harry Christophers, to take just two from musically different fields - none have the formidable clout to command front-page press attention or the ear of politicians, on behalf of our art form, in quite the way Rattle has. Just look at how much coverage his comments about London needing a new concert hall garnered (and once they did, how swiftly politicians were keen to be seen to be listening).

This isn't to imply the appointment is not a musically astute one too of course. Rattle's credentials as a conductor in an impressive breadth of repertoire and approach need no re-stating here, and it will be fascinating to follow the journey he plans to take his new orchestra on. He talks of taking them 'further back', adding that 'I see absolutely no reason why they should not be playing Rameau, Bach and Handel as well as Adès, Benjamin and Knussen - and everything in between,' he said. He also spoke of giving 'more kinds of chamber music and soloistic opportunities to the orchestra, simply so it can expand.' That London has managed to secure Sir Simon Rattle's appointment (and potentially for the long term - the contract is for an initial five years, but, Rattle adds, 'we look on each other as a family, and we're clear in our minds that this is a long term thing') is a great thing for the audiences of today.

But it's what it might mean for the audiences of tomorrow that is really exciting. 

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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